Community colleges are supposed to be the great equalizers of our society. Recently, we have been getting a lot of attention. Influential organizations have started to move beyond access to focus on completion. Many states are galvanizing resources to improve student success from the macro perspective, and the buzz that community colleges are the engines to economic recovery can be heard in many circles. But what does student success look like when you are on the front lines?
Most of us make it our professional mission to work in community colleges because we are true believers in the power these institutions have to transform the lives of our students, their families and our communities. We know that our work is hard, because we must serve students with diverse academic and life management skills. Some of our students could be considered the “cream of the crop,” the type that could be easily admitted into four-year institutions. Other students, however, struggle academically, but with a little push can go a long way. Yet many of our students have weak academic skills and need developmental education to bring them up to par. Students come to us right out of high school, in middle age, after being laid off from work or after a life-changing event.
Those of us who work in community colleges have met those students who make huge sacrifices to obtain an education. I will not forget the student who walked for miles to make it to class. There was the pregnant student who had no food to eat, but made every effort to make it through her program with the future of her unborn child as a guide. There was the father who would not quit, no matter how rough the situations, because he knew his family’s future depended on his success in the classroom. There was the brilliant student who simply could not afford an education. There were those students who just got laid off from their jobs in the mills and were very scared about their futures. How do we make sure that these individuals make it through to graduation?
My experience is that we must focus on our mission, measure our expectations, remain creative and brave, and never forget that it starts with each student, one at a time. One of the things we have been able to do at our college is to develop a persistence and retention department.
Gaston College has a strong history of using strategic planning to set goals, to provide a framework for excellence and to respond to community needs as well as future opportunities. It was through this comprehensive process that the college confronted the high level of attrition and low retention and persistence rates of at-risk students. The processes started more than five years ago, before I was part of the college team. At that time, the vice president of academics also was serving as the vice president of student services. A team to focus on persistence and retention was formed. There was no money to do much, so the team focused on research of proven initiatives.
When I was hired as the vice president for student services and enrollment management, I made funding for the persistence and retention program a high priority. We secured a Title III grant, which provided initial resources for the ambitious plans of the persistence and retention team. The position of director of persistence and retention was created, and an experienced person was appointed. This position reports directly to student services and indirectly to academic affairs. The director’s responsibilities encompass the entire college and include the management of the Title III grant, a TRIO grant, the Academic Related Courses, an early alert program that we call the Student Persistence and Success Plan, an Academic Assistance Fund, a Community Resource Referral program and other initiatives.
Collaboration and creativity between academic affairs and student services have been vital to providing services to help our students succeed. For example, six highly-respected faculty members were appointed to support the early alert follow-up effort as student success coordinators. In that role, the faculty members receive training and partial release time from their teaching duties to provide support for the early alert initiative. They offer presentations within their academic divisions, work collaboratively with other faculty and staff, and track important data to help quantify goal achievement.
We have had many challenges, but our efforts have paid off. For example, the goal for the first year we had the Title III grant was to increase the retention rate for at-risk students from 48 to 52 percent, and we surpassed that goal by increasing it to 67 percent. Another example, our college’s foundation raises funds to support our Academic Assistance Fund. Students can apply for a maximum of $250 per academic year and do not have to pay it back. The fund allows the college to meet students’ immediate financial needs that are affecting their academic success.
Silvia Patricia Rios Husain serves as vice president of student services and enrollment management at Gaston College in Dallas, N.C.
This forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.